Knute Rockne received a rude introduction to football.
As a young Norwegian immigrant to the Logan Square district of Chicago, Rockne first played the game with his immigrant neighbors on the sandlots. A slender and swift ballcarrier, Rockne broke away from his pursuers for a long run, a sure touchdown. But a rowdy group of fans for the opponents stepped in, stripped the ball away from his cradled arms and mistook his body for a punching bag. When he finally arrived home, his parents took one look at his tattered body and announced that his football career was over.
But a few bumps and bruises would not keep Rockne away from the game he loved for long. With his parents’ blessing, he returned to the gridiron in high school and later emerged as the country’s most respected, innovative and successful college football coach of all time.
After Rockne finished high school, he worked as a mail dispatcher with the Chicago Post Office for four years and continued his athletic endeavors at the Irving Park Athletic Club, the Central YMCA and the Illinois Athletic Club. By then he had saved enough money to continue his education and boarded the train for South Bend and Notre Dame. After a difficult first year as a scrub with the varsity, Rockne turned his attention to track where he earned a monogram and later set a school record (12-4) in the indoor pole vault. Those accomplishments gave him incentive to give football another try. This time he succeeded and eventually was named to Walter Camp’s All-America football squad as a third-string end. During his senior season (1913) when he served as captain, Rockne and his roommate, quarterback Gus Dorais, stunned Army with their deadly pass combination and handed the high-ranking Cadets a 35-13 setback.
But Rockne — who also fought semi-professionally in South Bend, wrote for the student newspaper and yearbook, played flute in the school orchestra, took a major role in every student play and reached the finals of the Notre Dame marbles tournament — considered himself primarily a student. He worked his way through school, first as a janitor and then as a chemistry research assistant to Professor Julius A. Nieuwland, whose discoveries led to synthetic rubber. Rockne graduated magna cum laude with a 90.52 (on a scale of 100) grade average.
Upon graduation Rockne was offered a post at Notre Dame as a graduate assistant in chemistry. He accepted that position on the condition that he be allowed to help Jesse Harper coach the football team. When Harper retired after the 1917 season, Rockne was named his successor.
Under Rockne’s tutelage, Notre Dame skyrocketed to national prominence and became America’s team. With their penchant for upsetting the stronger, more established football powers throughout the land, the Irish captured the hearts of millions of Americans who viewed Notre Dame’s victories as hope for their own battles.
During Rockne’s 13-year coaching tenure, Notre Dame beat Stanford in the ’25 Rose Bowl and put together five unbeaten and untied seasons. Rockne produced 20 first-team All-Americans. His lifetime winning percentage of .881 (105-12-5) still ranks at the top of the list for both college and professional football. Rockne won the last 19 games he coached.
Rockne, who was inducted into the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame in 1951 –the first year of inductions –revolutionized the game of football with his wide-ranging ideas and innovations.
Rockne was the first football coach to take his team all over the country and initiate intersectional rivalries. The Irish competed in a national arena. He challenged the best football teams in the land and almost always won.
Using his medical and anatomical knowledge, Rockne designed his own equipment and uniforms. He reduced the amount of bulk and weight of the equipment, while increasing its protectiveness. He also introduced the gold satin and silk pants that cut down on wind resistance.
Rockne foresaw the day of the two-platoon system and often used his “shock troops,” a full team of second stringers, at the start of most games.
Inspired by the precision and timing of a chorus line, Rockne added the Notre Dame shift to his playbook. In the shift, all four backs were still in motion at the snap. Opponents were so dumbfounded by the shift that they couldn’t find a consistent way to handle it. The rules board finally enacted a law against the shift.
Rockne also attempted to outsmart his coaching peers by downplaying his squads’ talent. He never boasted about his team or its strengths; rather, he lamented his squad’s lack of skill every chance he got.
Rockne believed that half of football strategy was passing, while most of his counterparts kept the ball on the ground.
But football was never enough for Rockne. He also served as Notre Dame’s athletic director, business manager, ticket distributor, track coach and equipment manager; he wrote a newspaper column once a week; he authored three books, including a volume of juvenile fiction; Rockne was principal designer of Notre Dame Stadium; he opened a stock brokerage firm in South Bend during his last season; he was a dedicated family man to his wife Bonnie and their four children and for years raised much of the family’s food in his garden. Rockne also made several public speeches a year and served as a public spokesman for Studebaker.
After the championship season of 1930, Rockne tried to get away for a much-needed rest and vacation. But he was needed in Los Angeles to make a football demonstration movie.
An enthusiastic flier and never one to waste time, Rockne boarded Transcontinental-Western’s Flight 599 from Kansas City to Los Angeles on March 31, 1931. Shortly after takeoff, the plane flew into a storm, became covered with ice and fell into a wheat field near Bazaar, Kan. There were no survivors.